A Journalistic Lowpoint? The Wall Street Journal on Sudan

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On 12 December 2001, ‘The Wall Street Journal’ published an article entitled “Don’t ‘Engage’ Rogue Regimes”, written by Michael Rubin. Although Mr Rubin is described as an adjunct scholar of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and a fellow of Hebrew University’s Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations, his obvious shortcomings as a researcher are more than amply reflected in this article, as is ‘The Wall Street Journal”s questionable choice of commentators.

It should be noted from the outset that this news item is but one in a catalogue of questionable and discredited claims that have been made over the years on Sudan and the Sudanese conflict. In 1999, for example, the British media widely reported similarly dubious claims that Sudanese government forces had used chemical weapons in southern Sudan. (1) In 2000, a British newspaper reported that 700,000 Chinese soldiers were being deployed in southern Sudan, a claim similarly publicly exposed as yet another false allegation. (2)

Rubin’s glib and intellectually undemanding recital of Sudan’s alleged involvement in terrorism is tenaciously out of date. He starts off by citing the Clinton Administration’s 1993 listing of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism. This listing was questioned from the start by former President Jimmy Carter, who asked to see the evidence for Sudan’s listing. He reported that: “In fact, when I later asked an assistant secretary of state he said they did not have any proof, but there were strong allegations.” (1) The simple fact is that the listing was based on the over one hundred CIA reports on Sudan and terrorism from 1993 withdrawn in 1996 as unreliable or having been fabricated. (2) Sudan continues to be listed more as a matter of saving face for Washington than anything else. The gap between American claims about Sudan, and reality, was also clearly demonstrated by Washington’s amazingly inept 1998 cruise missile attack on the al-Shifa medicine factory in Khartoum, an attack acknowledged to have been the result of yet more disastrous American intelligence failures.(3) This level of incompetence led the London ‘Times’ newspaper to state that such a circumstance “is no great surprise to those who have watched similar CIA operations in Africa where ‘American intelligence’ is often seen as an oxymoron.” (4) Much the same might be said of Rubin and research skills. All Rubin has done is echo claims that are not just unreliable but which, in the final analysis, amount to little more than state sponsored propaganda by the former Clinton Administration.(5)

The gist of Rubin’s article is criticism that the Bush Administration is “trying to entice” Sudan “into cooperating” in the war against terrorism. This is a doubly ironic claim for Rubin to have made. Academics are also expected to review all available material before reaching conclusions. In his enthusiasm to propagate fundamentally questionable images of Sudan, however, Mr Rubin appears to have ignored or overlooked independent material which contradict his claims. Both the American magazine ‘Vanity Fair’ and a September 2001 article in ‘The Observer’ newspaper in Britain reported that far from needing to be enticed to cooperate on anti-terrorism, Sudan’s attempts to actively cooperate with the United States with regard to al-Qaeda and Osama bin- Laden had been repeatedly rebuffed for several years before being acted upon in part by Washington in 2000. (6) Moreover, in November this year, ‘The Washington Post’ also publicly revealed that Sudan offered to hand Osama bin-Laden over to the American government in 1996. Amazingly, the offer was declined.(7) Mr Rubin appears to have studiously avoided reading these key articles, articles central to the claims made in his article. After several years of declining repeated Sudanese invitations for American intelligence and counter-terrorist personnel to come to Sudan and investigate whatever they wanted to, joint CIA, FBI and State Department counter-terrorism and intelligence teams have been in Sudan continuously, at Khartoum’s request, since early 2000, almost eighteen months before the attacks on 11 September 2001.(8) ‘The Observer’ confirmed that in May 2001 these teams had given Sudan “a clean bill of health” with regard to allegations of terrorism. In August 2001 Bush Administration officials further confirmed that the Sudanese-American cooperation on counter-terrorism had been positive. (9) This American- Sudanese intelligence cooperation was said to have “covered everything”.(10) In fact, based on these extensive investigations, the United States had agreed to the lifting of the limited United Nations sanctions on Sudan.(11) Speaking on the same day as the Rubin article was published, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Walter Kansteiner confirmed that Sudan had been cooperating with the United States for some time before the World Trade Center attacks, and that this cooperation had reached new levels since 11 September: “We appreciate Khartoum’s relationship with us.”(12)

Rubin’s Claims about Chemical Weapons: Disproven Old Allegations

In addition to his sterile claims about terrorism, ‘The Wall Street Journal’ also allowed Rubin to make further sensationalist allegations, without the slightest hint of any evidence, that the Sudanese government has “chemical weapons stockpiles” in Juba, the main city in southern Sudan. These are precisely the sort of claims which were the precursors to the farcical American attack on the al-Shifa factory mentioned above, which was similarly claimed to have been stockpiling chemical weapons. Rubin also alleges that “throughout the 1990s” Sudan “provided a safe- haven for…Iraqis working to develop chemical weapons, outside the view of U.N. weapons inspectors”: he also claims that Sudan has acquired chemical weapons from Iraq. These clumsy allegations have also been comprehensively contradicted by, amongst others, the White House, the British government and UNSCOM. In 1998, the Clinton Administration, clearly no friend of Khartoum, publicly stated that: “We have no credible evidence that Iraq has exported weapons of mass destruction technology to other countries since the (1991) Gulf War.”(13) In addition to the American government, the British government also stated that there was no evidence for any such weapons of mass destruction technology transfers from Iraq to Sudan. This was the view of both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Defence Intelligence staff of the British Ministry of Defence. On 19 March 1998, Baroness Symons, the then Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, stated in Parliament in relation to claims similar to those made by Rubin, including chemical and biological weapons, that: “We are monitoring the evidence closely, but to date we have no evidence to substantiate these claims….Moreover, we know that some of the claims are untrue…”(14) The British government also stated that: “Nor has the United Nations Special Commission reported any evidence of such transfers since the Gulf War conflict and the imposition of sanctions in 1991.” (15) Who is one to believe with regard to chemical weapons and terrorism? The American and British governments and UNSCOM or Rubin, someone who is seemingly unable to keep up with searingly relevant material such as that published in ‘The Washington Post’, ‘Vanity Fair’ and ‘The Observer’, and who bases his claims on “interviews” with people conveniently presented to him in rebel-controlled areas of southern Sudan? (16)

Rubin’s Claims of Slavery in Sudan

Michael Rubin is generous with his allegations of government-sponsored “slavery” in Sudan, claiming that “few” non governmental organizations “deny the existence of” of slavery. This would not appear to apply to those groups and activists closest to the real issue of abductions and kidnappings in Sudan. Sir Robert Ffolkes, director of the Save the Children (UK) programme in Sudan, an organisation at the forefront of the abductions issue, contradicts Rubin somewhat. Speaking earlier this year he stated: “I have seen no evidence at all of slave trading. And believe me, we have looked”.(17) Sir Robert has also said: “I do not believe the government in involved in slave-taking.” (18)

Who does one believe? Reputable professionals who are present full-time in Sudan or claims made by prejudiced, ivory-tower academics on the basis of one, quick carefully chaperoned propaganda visit to southern Sudan?

The respected human rights expert, and Sudan specialist, Alex de Waal, while co-director of the human rights group African Rights, has also stated with regard to claims similar to those of Rubin’s:

“(O)vereager or misinformed human rights advocates in Europe and the US have played upon lazy assumptions to raise public outrage. Christian Solidarity International, for instance, claims that “Government troops and Government-backed Arab militias regularly raid black African communities for slaves and other forms of booty”. The organization repeatedly uses the term “slave raids”, implying that taking captives is the aim of government policy. This despite the fact that there is no evidence for centrally-organized, government-directed slave raiding or slave trade.” (19)

Anti-Slavery International has also stated with regard to allegations of government involvement in slavery that: “[T]he charge that government troops engage in raids for the purpose of seizing slaves is not backed by the evidence.” (20)

The sort of claims of “slavery” made by Rubin have been extensively questioned. Reuters, for example, has reported with regard to the sort of “slaves” presented to Rubin that: “Local aid workers…say that they have seen children who they have known for months passed off as slaves…And Reuters interviewed one boy in Yargot who told a completely implausible story of life in the north, a story which he changed in every respect when translators were swapped.” (21) Similarly, ‘The Christian Science Monitor’ also clearly stated: “There are increasingly numerous reports that significant numbers of those ‘redeemed’ were never slaves in the first place. Rather, they were simply elements of the local populations, often children, available to be herded together when cash-bearing redeemers appeared.” (22) It would appear that Rubin and ‘The Wall Street Journal’ chose not to look to far beyond a questionable facade.

Rubin’s Reliance on Christian Solidarity International as a Source

The questionable claims made by Rubin are clearly the result of questionable sources. Rubin cites, for example, without attribution, claims about government raids and enslavement made by Christian Solidarity International (CSI) in November 2001, claims which alleged that there were government attacks on villages near Aweil in the course of which villagers were killed and 85 women and children were “enslaved”. CSI’s reliability has already been commented upon by reputable human rights activists as “overeager or misinformed” who have also stated that the organisation has “played upon lazy assumptions to raise public outrage.” In February 2000 the Canadian government special envoy to Sudan stated that “reports, especially from CSI…were questioned, and frankly not accepted.” (23) Rubin, however, accepts them at face value.

Rubin’s Missing Aid Worker

In his article Rubin makes much of a Kenyan aid worker who had been “abducted, and has not been seen since”. Once again this was characteristically sensationalist. The Kenyan relief worker in question, Miss Juliana Waithera Muiruri, had indeed been caught up (without visas or documentation) in a skirmish in one of southern Sudan’s war zones. She was released on 18 November 2001, over three weeks before Rubin’s article: she has also expressed an interest in returning to Sudan, this time “with proper papers”. (24) Rubin has obviously not allowed facts to get in the way of a good yarn.

Rubin’s Visit to Southern Sudan

Rubin somewhat disingenuously states that he chose to enter southern Sudan rather than northern Sudan because Khartoum “restricts the movement of visitors and tightly monitors with whom they speak”.

What Rubin does not tell his readers is that access into SPLA-controlled areas of southern Sudan is notoriously restricted. One needs written permission from the SPLA before one enters these areas, and once there the rebel movement certainly monitors whom visitors speak to. An insight into this control was reflected in the “Memorandum of Understanding” the SPLA demanded that all nongovernmental organisations that wished to be present within SPLA areas of southern Sudan should sign. This “Memorandum” sought, amongst other things, to restrict the movement of aid agencies, and stated that NGOs could only employ SPLA-approved workers and that they could not hold public meetings without rebel permission. American development aid expert, and Clinton Administration official, John Prendergast documented earlier SPLA’s restrictive behaviour within the areas it controls: “A late 1993 SRRA [the SPLA’s relief wing] directive in Maridi and Mundri stated that visitors were forbidden to talk to local people, but rather must speak to the SRRA. The recent SRRA law reads more like a police directive…according to one aid official. ‘Its practicalities are abhorrent.’…There are SRRA minders following wherever NGO representatives go.” (25) Eleven international humanitarian aid agencies felt themselves unable to remain active in southern Sudan under the restrictive conditions demanded of them by the SPLA and left southern Sudan. (26) One can safely assume that this happens to other visitors, especially journalists. Given the SPLA’s strict controls, and its reputation for “misinformation” and “cheap propaganda”, one can be sure that the only people Rubin spoke to were people the SPLA wanted him to see. Mr Rubin, however, apparently felt comfortable with these conditions. Perhaps he was too naéve to have noticed.

Conclusion

Sources are everything both to academics and journalists. Mr Rubin, and ‘The Wall Street Journal’, have displayed an amazing indifference with regard to the reliability of the sources for claims made in this article. This was particularly irresponsible given the serious nature of the allegations that were made in the article. ‘The Wall Street Journal’ comes out of this badly. It has a clear responsibility not to publish the sort of unsubstantiated stories about weapons of mass destruction and slavery that it did. Its reputation as a newspaper of record is dented by this tabloid-esque journalism about Sudan. The article they chose to publish would have been far more at home in ‘The National Enquirer’. Having published what can at best be described as irresponsible, questionable allegations about Sudan, ‘The Wall Street Journal’ then declined the offer of an article presenting an alternative perspective. (27)

Mr Rubin either ignored or was unaware of crucial material on Sudan central to the issue he was supposedly addressing. Out of naivety or partisanship he chose sources that have long been seen as deeply questionable. In any instance, he was too lazy, intellectually unable or politically unwilling to address the issues objectively: none of which commend him as a particularly astute writer on Sudan.

Notes:

1       ‘The Independent’ (London), 17 September 1993.

2       See, “Decision to Strike Factory in Sudan Based Partly on Surmise”, ‘The Washington Post’, 21 September 1998; and “Sudan Attack Blamed on US Blunders”, ‘The Times’ (London), 22 September 1998.

3       ‘The Wall Street Journal’ also reported on the al-Shifa attack. See, “More Doubts Rise Over Claims for U.S. Attack”, ‘The Wall Street Journal’ (New York), August 28, 1998; “Sudan to Allow U.N. to Investigate Any Alleged Chemical-Arm Site”, ‘The Wall Street Journal’ (New York), October 16, 1998; “U.S. Should Admit Its Mistake in Sudan Bombing”, ‘The Wall Street Journal’ (New York), May 20, 1999. It is surprising to see it subsequently publish unsubstantiated claims of Sudanese involvement in chemical weapons.

4       “Sudan Attack Blamed on US Blunders”, ‘The Times’ (London), 22 September 1998.

5       For a detailed study of the Clinton Administration’s policies towards Sudan, see ‘Farce Majeure: The Clinton Administration’s Sudan Policy 1993-2000’, The European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, London, 2000, available at www.espac.org

6       See, David Rose, “The Secret Bin Laden Files: The AlQaeda Intelligence the U.S. Ignored”, ‘Vanity Fair’  (New York), January 2002, p.50 (Available in the United States from December 5 onwards, a week before Rubin’s article in ‘The Wall Street Journal’); and “Resentful West Spurned Sudan’s Key Terror Files”, ‘The Observer’ (London), 30 September 2001.

7       “Sudan Offered Up bin Laden in ’96”, ‘The Washington Post’, 3 October 2001.

8       See, for example, “US Sees Good Progress in Terrorism Talks with Sudan”, News Article by Reuters on 25 September 2001.

9       “Powell Mulls U.N. Action on Sudan After Report African Government is Moving in right Direction on Terrorism”, News Article by Associated Press on 22 August 2001 and “Sudan Provides Intelligence to U.S.”, News Article by Reuters, 29 September 2001.

10      “Foreign Minister says Sudan has been Cooperating with the United States in the Fight against Terrorism for More Than a Year”, News Article by Associated Press on 25 September 2001.

11      See, for example, “US Allows UN Council to End Sanctions Against Sudan”, News Article by Reuters on 28 September 2001; “US Ready to End U.N. Sanctions on Sudan Friday”, News Article by Reuters on 28 September 2001; “US Allows UN Council to End Sanctions Against Sudan”, News Article by Reuters, 28 September 2001.

12      “U.S. Official Accuses Somalia of Harboring Terrorists”, News Article by Xinhua, 12 December 2001.

13      “White House Says No Sign Iraq Exported Arms”, News Article by Reuters on 17 February 1998.

14      House of Lords ‘Official Report’, London, 19 March 1998, cols. 818-820.

15      House of Lords ‘Official Report’, London, 19 March 1998, cols. 818-820.

16      The SPLA’s capacity for deceit and deception is a matter of record. Dr Peter Nyaba, a SPLA national executive member, has spoken candidly of what he describes as the SPLA’s “sub-culture of lies, misinformation, cheap propaganda and exhibitionism” (See, Peter Nyaba, The Politics of Liberation in South Sudan: An Insider’s View’, Fountain Publishers, Kampala, 1997, pp.55, 66).

17      Sir Robert Ffolkes was quoted in “‘Sudan’, A Special International Report”, ‘The Washington Times’, 10 July 2001.

18      “Anti-Slavery Drive in War-Torn Sudan Provokes Response Critics Say Buyback Boost Market”, ‘The Washington Times’, 25 May 2000.

19      Alex de Waal, “Sudan: Social Engineering, Slavery and War”, in ‘Covert Action Quarterly’, Spring 1997.

20      Peter Verney, ‘Slavery in Sudan’, Sudan Update and Anti-Slavery International, London, May 1997.

21      “Aid group tries to break Sudan slavery chain”, News Article by Reuters on July 11, 1999 at 23:40:58.

22      “Slave ‘Redemption’ Won’t Save Sudan”, ‘The Christian Science Monitor’, 26 May 1999.

23      Ambassador John Harker, ‘Human Security in Sudan: The Report of a Canadian Assessment Mission’ Prepared for the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ottawa, January 2000. See, also,

24      Miss Muiruri’s release was widely reported. See, for example, “Deported Aid Worker Tells of Wish to Return”, News Article by the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, Nairobi, 27 November 2001; and “Aid Worker With a Big Heart”, ‘The East African Standard’, Nairobi, 5 December 2001.

25      John Prendergast, ‘Crisis Response: Humanitarian Band-Aids in Sudan and Somalia’, Pluto Press, London,1977, p.59

26      See, “CARE, Other NGOs, Withdraw from South Sudan”, News Article by Agence France Presse on 24 February, 2000;  “Sudan: Focus on NGO Pullout from SPLM”, News Article by Integrated Regional Information Network, Nairobi, 29 February, 2000.

27      Conversation with ‘The Wall Street Journal’ Editorial Page staff-member on 14 December 2001.

The European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council sent this media contribution to Media Monitors Network (MMN)

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